And Yet It All Seems Limitless

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five time more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
—For Brandon and Eliza
Ever Joined in True Love’s Beauty

Beautiful old graveyards address my main complaint about the outdoors: that there’s nothing to read. I’d like more epitaphs, which too few Americans seem to write, but will settle for the barest names, dates, and family labels in this migratory culture, where Hmong mothers lie next to Finnish fathers. Cemeteries makes me wonder about all those lives: short and long, dynastic and solitary, local and far-flung.

In Brooklyn, I used to go to Green-Wood Cemetery to see my compatriots, Dubliner John Mackay, with his heated mausoleum, and the scandalizing Limerickwoman, Lola Montez, dead at 42 and buried decorously as Mrs. Eliza Gilbert.

In Seattle, I lived near the lovely Lake View Cemetery. Another Irishman, P.J. Malone, lies 5,000 miles from his native Mayo, and surely could not have imagined the pilgrims who traipse over his worn 1873 headstone to visit his next-door neighbors, Bruce Lee, who was buried a hundred later, and his son Brandon.

Brandon’s epitaph plays in my mind this season as I make a daily loop of Lake View Cemetery in North Oakland. It’s another beautiful spot, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted with the generosity of an architect who will never see the shapes of his mature plantings. I push my baby’s stroller up the spiraling paths, panting as my softened body tries to harden again. At the top we look down over the San Francisco Bay, south to Silicon Valley, west to Twin Peaks, and north to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Oakland Hills are behind us, with Berkeley to the east.

I take the sunshade down so that Tara can look at the light filtering through the leaves overhead. She squints as she surveys her territory, steering an imaginary convertible with plump arms. Her skin is golden and her eyes darkest brown. She watches her fellow north American natives, the nine wild turkeys who own this hill and the countless Canada geese who gobble the watered grass and then poop more than a ship of babies.

She babbles. We have a little chat about the big birdies.

It occurs to me that she will have an American accent, and that unlike me she will know how to say her name.

(“Is it Taw-ruh or Teaah-rah?” said the obstetrician when I was in heaviest labor, and it dawned on me that there are two distinct American pronunciations, neither of which is my flat Irish “Tah-rah.” Even Siri thinks I say “Tyra,” squashing my hopes that my daughter would have a foolproof Irish name.)

I keep hearing that with motherhood the days are long and the years are short. I don’t find it so, perhaps because I waited so long to meet her. It’s all fast to me. Our days together divide into miniature days that loop quickly. Sleep, eat, blurp, play. Sleep, eat, blurp, play. Walk. Visit friends. And again. And again.

Wherever we are, Tara concentrates on the light, staring at the lamp, the window, the sky, or her Twilight Turtle. The changes help her puzzle out our fruit-fly rhythms. She’s new here, but she’s a great navigator.

I love Brandon Lee’s epitaph. I love the reminder that this immigrant mother and native daughter will have only a certain number of these afternoons at the top of an Oakland hill. Even the act of remembering them will happen only a certain number of times for me, and she won’t record them at all. And yet I look into her face and want to give her every single thing we can see, and all of it seems limitless.

2015-09-06 16.06.11

Green Card

I’ve worked with my immigration lawyer for 12 years now, and no one knows more about me than Ken. He may not know what makes my heart beat faster (too much red wine and coffee, Ken), but he has the facts.

He has an original copy of my Leaving Cert results, and he knows the exact and dismal grade I got in my Organizational Behavior mid-term 15 years ago. He has letters from every company I’ve worked for, and unlike my parents, he knows what I did there, too—in fact, he helped me get work permits for most of them. He has maintained a trail of my addresses matched only by my Amazon account. Copies of my fingerprints, birth certificate, social security card, marriage license, divorce decree, and passport live in his files. He has written proof that I’m not tubercular, am HIV negative, and have been vaccinated according to today’s medical fashions.

If I were a private eye, hired by the children of a lovestruck billionaire to find dirt on me, I’d break into Ken’s files first.

His official client is my boss, Susan, who is my sponsor. She’s the one who paid him to make the case to the United States Immigration and Citizenship Service (USCIS) that my job is specialized enough to justify hiring a Green Card holder, and then to show that I’m qualified to be that very special alien.

The Green Card process is straightforward if you’re trying to hire a foreign scientist to build rockets. It may take a few years, but it’s not hard to prove that, in order, a) this job requires certain skills, b) no qualified Americans are available to do it at the prevailing wage right now and c) this talented foreigner is qualified to take the position based on her PhD in rocket science and her five years’ experience building rockets in Tanzania or Switzerland.

The path is twistier if, as in Susan’s case, you’re trying to hang onto an Irish BA graduate for a job that involves anything from making a diorama of the contents of a high-school locker to writing speeches for coffee moguls to coming up with a list of names of emerging stars who should be invited to Davos. (“Preferably females from the developing world…,” is always the whisper added to those requests.)

These are the requirements for a job like mine: curiosity, apophenia, empathy, and common sense, plus fair-to-middling writing skills and an ability to improvise.

The USCIS doesn’t count chronic apophenia as a qualification for becoming a resident alien in the United States. Nor do they take into consideration your card-counting ability, or your yellow hair. All that matters is your educational attainment in a relevant field and the work experience you racked up before you started the job in question—again, as long as you can show that it’s directly relevant. My Spanish degree looks muy bonito on my resume, but since I don’t have Spanish-speaking clients, it’s of no use to my Green Card application. Nor are the 18 months I spent failing to become a banker, way back when.

Over the past four years, Ken did the hard labor of proving that my job warranted special qualifications, and that no qualified natives had presented themselves when Susan advertised the position. What remained was to prove that I was worth a Green Card—that my degree, my paltry marketing diploma, and my lurching career were enough. Though I had no faith in my resume, I believed Ken would fix all my faults and lacks, so I was surprised to get a letter this past February. I shouldn’t have been.

“Request for Evidence,” it was titled. “The documentation submitted is not sufficient to warrant favorable consideration of your petition.”

It came from the USCIS processing center in Lincoln, Nebraska. I’ve been to Lincoln once. Tim drove me through it on a cross-country trip during the Christmas holidays of 2007. We bawled the Bruce Springsteen song over the roar of the old Honda. The muffler had dropped off in Detroit, and though Tim lay in the snow at an Iowa truckstop in order to tie it back on with yellow baling twine, all we got was a few miles of clunking and scraping before the renewed roar of internal combustion. A blizzard chased us across the plains. Every so often we’d pass a yard with a Clinton sign or, more rarely, an Obama sign. Whenever we stopped for coffee at a McDonald’s, our ears rang, and then froze. At the Wal-Mart on the Nebraska border, the cashier asked if we wanted a cooked chicken for two dollars. They would have to throw the chickens out at closing time, and the staff weren’t allowed to take them home. We ate it in a motel room, watching coverage of the Iowa caucus.

After twelve years living on the coasts, it was my first real visit to America. It was wonderful.

When I got that letter from the USCIS, I thought about the person who wrote it. February 2nd, 2009 it was dated: I pictured her pulling on a bulky jacket, cold to the touch from hanging in the hallway overnight, and stepping outside to shovel the driveway so she could get to work. On the car radio, she would hear more still about the unemployment rate, consumer confidence, and the banking crisis—enough misery to make her look for a music station. Then a stop for an Egg McMuffin, maybe, and the pleasure of that first sip of office coffee, and a chat about The Bachelor with the woman at the next desk. After that she would turn to the next file in her tray: a fat packet, 18 months old, with neatly tabbed sections for application forms, college transcripts, complicated descriptions of dotcom-era jobs in New York City, paystubs and tax records, and a covering letter in lawyer language setting forth why this Dervala Afria Hanley should get to get to stay in the United States.

She wants to live in San Francisco, this woman with the unpronounceable names. She has a fancy-sounding job—a Marketing Strategist, whatever that is—and she earns twice as much as a USCIS caseworker in Lincoln, Nebraska. Per the regulations, she doesn’t smile in the passport photos, and there’s a haughty look on her face, as if she shouldn’t have to sit through this. Born in Zambia, the application says, and then a string of jobs in London, New York and San Francisco. Divorced.

“Job losses in January reached record highs in every state…”

Must be nice to live in California in January.

When I think of a USCIS caseworker sitting at her desk in Lincoln, Nebraska this past February, assessing my application, I am amazed at her generosity in asking for more evidence instead of turning me down flat.

Ken and I scrambled for a few weeks, collecting more letters and transcripts. We had to ask my colleagues to dig out five years of corporate tax returns and other evidence that the company was real and could pay a worker. Then he mailed off another fat packet, and I waited.

Driving to work last Monday I thought about when I would have to start planning for failure. My H1-B work permit expires a year from now, and without a Green Card, I’d have to leave the US once again. My home country seems to be in its worst state since the Famine, if the local radio podcasts are to be believed, and the rest of Europe is hardly better. It seemed a most miserable prospect, and yet, even in the privacy of my motorcycle helmet, I couldn’t make the case that I have more right to my job than the thousands who are being laid off every day. I began to wonder what new adventures would be pushed on me. I was getting ready to improvise again.

And then another of Ken’s measured notes arrived in my email inbox, pleased to inform Susan that Dervala’s I-140 immigrant petition had been accepted, and that once a Green Card number became available my full application should be approved.

It’s a thrill. I’m not a lawyer, or even a dealmaker, so I blurted out to everyone in Twitter or text message radius that I’d been approved for a Green Card. That’s not quite true yet, but it’s truthy enough for me to take big breaths of relief, to cry at little and then laugh, to start wondering about all kinds of things that have always been above my station. And to feel a small girl’s pride in doing it all by myself, without needing a man’s accomplishments to stand behind.

Thanks, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. I love you.

The Inevitable Evolution of Love

“On election day itself, as the state of California determines whether to make one last-ditch effort to hold back the inevitable evolution of love in the 21st century, Julie and Amy decide to get hitched (again). It is an act of love but also of protest, an affirmation of commitment but also a land-grab for legal rights.”—From a wedding invitation

“Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality… I think it’s a travesty that people have forced someone who is gay to have to make their case.“—Jon Stewart to Governor Mike Huckabee, The Daily Show

I

Cleo wore a princess dress and carried a basket of flowers. She handed each of us a flower and primly arranged the ones left over. Then she set them aside and climbed into the alcove where we’d left our coats—as high as her head—and with a “Watch me!” she jumped off. It was a good day for solemnity and leaps.

We stood at the top of the marble staircase in San Francisco’s City Hall, holding our flowers while we watched Julie and Amy, Cleo’s parents, take turns explaining how and why they loved each other. All week, they had fretted over whether to get married to mark this extraordinary time, and in the end they said yes—again—and each went off to write her vows. It had been fourteen and a half years since they’d met in New York City. They had enough time behind them to see their rhythms and loops, and enough time ahead to set lifelong intentions. They had tested out better and worse, and believed that they could rise to whatever life presented.

So they stood up in front of some friends who loved them, their six-year-old daughter, and a motherly Justice of the Peace, and vowed to stay together for the rest of their lives. This part bored Cleo a little, I think. There wasn’t enough about her. And then, a few minutes before 5.30 PM on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008, the Justice of the Peace smiled at Julie and Amy and said:

“By the power vested in me by the State of California,

I now pronounce you

spouses

for life.”

We all clapped, and a few of us cried, and Doug took photos with a sheet of white paper stuck behind his flash, either to soften or sharpen the light, I don’t know which. An Associated Press photographer took some shots too. While we hugged and congratulated, Cleo showed her friend Annabel how you could skid on the marble steps, and then we all walked down together. There is no better staircase in San Francisco on which to flounce the skirts of a party dress—even in motorcycle gear I feel like Scarlett O’Hara in City Hall.

There were other knots of people just like us—pairs of tuxes, pairs of dresses, some with supermarket bouquets, some with kids. When we walked outside there was a crowd of activists on the steps below, waving placards at the traffic. Some wore costumes, others wore slogan t-shirts. Many of the drivers honked their support and waved, and the activists blew their whistles and chanted back. We stood for a moment and watched. The news crews were parked across the street and a helicopter dangled above. The atmosphere was both festive and charged.

“These two just got married,” I said and pointed at Julie and Amy, and everybody on the steps turned to look up and celebrate them, punching balloons into the air, cheering and applauding. Cleo looked bemused at first, but then she took it as a natural wedding thing that strangers would whoop at her mothers and admire her dress. This is going to be a big memory for her.

Julie’s cousin had to go back to her kids—she was temporarily a single parent since her husband had quit his job to spend months volunteering for Obama in a faraway state. The rest of us made our way to a nearby restaurant to celebrate with wine and plates passed family-style. The customers at the restaurant bar were already tipsy with victory, their elbows nearer and nearer the TV, heads thrown back. “He’s got Pennsylvannia,” they shouted, and our chairs scraped back to see for ourselves. My Blackberry chirped: someone still at the office reported that Obama had won Ohio. In a neatly recycled celebration, Julie paid the restaurant bill with cash raised from selling Cleo’s outgrown crib.

II

Barack Obama was elected that night, and I went to the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, which was hosting the No on Prop 8 campaign party. It was jammed, and I squeezed into the lobby and watched his acceptance speech on the smallish screens behind the reception desk, standing on tiptoe and peering around a pillar. I could hear him but barely see him. He was alone on a giant stage, talking about the hundred-year-old lady.

The St. Francis was a fire hazard. I’m slight enough to weave through crowds so I made my way up to the second floor to find my friends, only to discover at the top of the stairs that no one was moving. Our bodies were pressed together and some people held champagne glasses overhead. We had become a single, breathing mass trying to pour a tentacle down the stairs. On the third floor, people were peering over the banisters to see if they would ever get down. Finally a security guard arrived and shouted instructions into a bullhorn: “No more people going up. No elevators. Make your way DOWN and to the street, and keep moving.”

The people in this crowd had led the fight to keep gay marriage legal in California, and a majority of their fellow citizens had just voted to take this right away from them. I thought of the Christian superstores of Orange County, and how sure their customers would have felt about their votes. In his acceptance speech, President-elect Barack Obama had just acknowledged gay Americans, and yet Julie and Amy’s freshly-signed marriage dangled between today’s law and tomorrow’s.

We had won and we had lost. This crowd—familiar with the rhythms of progress and setbacks—opted for cheerfulness. People practiced saying “President Obama” out loud.

Almost everyone who made it to the exit paused at the door to take in the scene in Union Square below. A cable car was stuck just in front of the hotel, and a gorgeous African-American girl took over the bells and played the staccato rhythms of “Yes, We Can” over and over so that the crowds could roar along.

The tourists had come out to watch the Americans. The only other passengers who stayed on the marooned cable car were a Japanese couple, the man snapping photographs and the woman covering her giggles as the crowd waved up at her. At the edge of the crowd, holding up cameras and then breaking off for multi-lingual discussions, were Italian students, middle-aged Germans, and some excited French. A dull-eyed Irish girl scratched the backfat rippling out of her cami while her sister and their boyfriends held her shopping bags and stared off, waiting for something to happen beyond the world turning upside down. All over San Francisco, strangers were dancing together.

III

The week before Christmas I went to the last Saturday night showing of Milk at the Castro Theater. As is fitting for the neighborhood, it’s a fabulous 1920s movie palace decked out with frescoes and gilt. Before each film, a platform rises slowly to stage level, bearing a bald man in a red jacket seated at an organ. With his back to the audience, he plays several songs to loud applause. Any movie at the Castro is an event, and none more than this one: the last time I was here, part of the street was roped off for the filming of Milk.

The film opened with real footage of men being pulled out of New York bars and loaded into police wagons. They were homosexuals, and therefore criminals and psychiatric cases, and they covered their own faces as if they agreed with those assessments. That was the detail that shoved me into tears that lasted throughout the film: these men—fruits, faggots, queers—were already imprisoned by shame.

I myself am a flaunting, flaming, flamboyant straight, known to flirt publicly, hold hands on the street, and wrap myself around a man on the dance-floor. I wear lipstick and high heels, and motorcycle jackets—sometimes all at once. I’ve brought men home for Christmas and expected my family to accept them. I’ve exercised my right to have a heterosexual union officially recognized, even though I didn’t uphold the institution of marriage very well. I pursue my straight agenda in spite of underwhelming results.

And yet for all my heterosexual brazenness, I also know about shame and fear. When I was growing up, Ireland had closets for all kinds of conditions that sat outside a narrow range of normal. We had a never-ask, never-tell culture of festering secrets, and every close Irish friend of mine can spill those tales today: madness hidden in plain sight; babies given away and never spoken of; violent wives; gay uncles in London; neighbor men with wandering hands. Our ferry ports and airports were pressure valves.

In AA, they say you are only as sick as your secrets, and your secrets will make you drink. I think this goes for societies as well as individuals, and it takes a long time to get over such training. In my own life I’ve kept silent about relationships, weaknesses, and beliefs that might threaten or draw censure, and in the face of bigotry, I’ve dissented mostly by walking on to more tolerant places. Anonymity matters to me.

IV

That’s why Harvey Milk’s bravery moves me to tears. For forty years he lived a cramped, coded, half-hidden life, as expected, and in return for that sacrifice he got to keep his job and a relationship with his family. And then, at forty, he decided that the price for these small rewards was too high, and he stepped into the San Francisco daylight. Somehow, he had saved up enough faith in himself to believe that if only people knew him and others like him for who they truly were, they would learn to find them ordinary rather than disgusting. He practiced radical acceptance, of himself and of others.

Milk asked for safety and respect—and with a smile he offered his own respect even to those who might fear or abuse him. He refused to underestimate people, and tried to inoculate them against homophobia by letting them react to a dose of his presence: a real, live gay man. He stood on a box and asked for an end to the secrets that protect only darkness.

Silence is complicity, and I am sad for people who still live in the many places where “gay” is a noun, not an adjective. For all the people, not just for “the gays” who are cast out. When some people have to live in the closet, we are all stuck in the dark.

In my home town, the compassionate line was once: “I just feel sorry for gays. It’s very hard for them, very lonely.” The circular logic has pissed me off since I was a teenager. Twenty years later, I live in San Francisco, where homosexuality is banal. Most of my gay colleagues are married with children, and busy with car-pooling and grade-school admissions. They’ve racked up decades together, their dogs growing from puppies to gray-muzzled shufflers. There is no pity required for these unlonely lives, and no need to fear such ordinary people. All that’s required is equality.

V

I remember chatting to my neighbor, Bryan, around the time San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom brought in gay marriage a few years back. Bryan is four years older than Barack Obama, and has seen plenty. He grew up in Watts, and remembers the confusion of the riots in 1965. He was one of five black students in his class at the University of Iowa. He lived through the exuberant seventies in gay San Francisco, and then through AIDS in the eighties and nineties. His long-term partner can get no citizenship status here, though they could get married and get citizenship in Scott’s country.

As we sorted our laundry in the garage that day, I put out some opinion I’d read about the dangers of rushing through gay marriage legislation. There was an election coming up, or just past, and people were saying that the sight of lesbian weddings had galvanized the opposition. Strategically, for everyone’s sake, might it have been better to wait until after the election?

Bryan interrupted me. “People will always tell you to wait, there’s always some reason to wait.” he said. “Well, I’m sick of waiting. It’s time.”

Dear Bryan, dear Harvey, dear Barack, dear Devin, dear Julie, Amy, and Cleo: thank you for your gracious impatience and your weaponless courage. Please keep pushing us to come out of the dark.

Further reading: Frank Rich in the NYTimes: “You’re likeable enough, gay people.

C.A.L.I.*

dervala-xmas-76.jpg

“Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away.”

—Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

I’m thirty-six years old and I don’t have kids.

Now there’s a sentence that can’t be neutral, even if every word in it is as short and bald as a baby. Who would choose to assert a lack? Yet the other ways we’ve tried to say it—like “childfree”— sound awkward and pointed, like insisting on “Ms” did in the seventies.

My parents were young when they had me, and I got used to being the oldest among their friends’ children. I was happier controlling the universe of half a dozen dazzled toddlers than taking my chances with kids my own age, so I turned into the kind of maternal 12-year-old girl that neighborhood mothers count on. Isn’t she great with the little ones, they’d say, grateful to be having tea and Viennese fingers while I played Ring-a-ring-a-rosy or read storybooks for hours.

I was proud of being seen as “good with kids,” and I’m still vain about it. When a three-year-old decides to be my friend, or a baby flirts, I note another conquest. God knows, it’s easy to get kids to love you: let them check you out before you look at them, don’t ask the dozy questions that most adults throw out, and if they decide to invite you into the world inside their heads, follow its logic absolutely. It’s a bonus if you’re still able and willing to jump around with them, but not vital.

My friend Andy talks about his lifelong dream never to go on a cruise. I didn’t have a lifelong dream never to have children. Like most choices, this one emerged over time from hundreds of smaller ones. Sometimes I tell my friends who are mothers that if I had ten million dollars I’d have a baby. It’s an arbitrary number, out of reach for me but just entry-level wealth down the road in Silicon Valley. Ten million dollars would fill a sandbag against the storms of change that the world and children bring. School fees, college tuition, soccer camp, braces, and psychiatry bills would get paid. I could buy back the time from my workaholic culture to be with a child, rather than working more to keep her from deprivation. I could pay for nannies when I wanted to use my brain again. Having overstretched geographically my whole grown-up life, I could shrink once again the distance between the cities I love and my family in Ireland.

It’s a cop-out, of course. I’m bound up in an individualistic, transaction-based culture, rising and falling by my own efforts, and I don’t like to need anything from the people I like and love. That membrane of separateness, of self-reliance, is as fragile and illusory as a soap bubble, and a child would pop it instantly. The ten-million-dollar thought experiment is a way to keep that bubble floating, to think about change without changing. It turns out that motherhood is one of those things that I’d like to experience, but don’t actually want to do.

In my twenties, the baby announcements were a novelty, and I remember feeling vaguely sorry for the friends who were missing out on the nights out and the sleeps in. Now most of my pals are parents, and each “We’re pregnant!” feels like the news that a friend has got a dream job in Cleveland. I’m glad for them, but there’s a large, disgruntled child in me who wants to send baby back to the hospital.

The truth is, I’m not envious of my friends who have children. I’m envious of the children who have my friends.

There’s genius in a kid’s fresh worldview, and I like to keep up with their latest sayings and doings. I play slideshows of their Hallowe’en photos on my second monitor at work. I’m a small-time scholar of fashions in child-rearing, and I ask endless questions about parenthood and the transforming, heart-stretching love that it inspires in the most unlikely people. (My friend Padraig, who once claimed that as a father he would be “harsh but cruel; distant, yet remote,” is now hopelessly in love with two small boys and a girl.) I can’t imagine what it feels to walk around with a piece of your heart outside your body, though I do remember the painful tenderness I felt for my baby sisters.

But I’ve come to prefer the company of real, live children in concentrated doses, followed by nighty-nights and grown-up chat. Children were once small, not very competent apprentices in the family enterprise, who couldn’t wait to be big and useful. Today, they are the clients, and parents act the part of the incompetent account manager, offering endless options that don’t quite please and blanket praise for every eaten pea and filled potty. (“Oh, good jo-ob, Micah!”) The whole show is tedious. Why are people spending so much time training kids to “make good choices,” and so little teaching them to accept the world with grace? (I treasure the old-fashioned, please-and-thank-you kids I know, who seem to be not just better mannered but more content.)

Karl Lagerfeld told a story about his horrible Prussian mother, who once told him, after he repeated a childish story too often, “Karl, you may be six but I am not, and your stories are very boring to me. Please try to be more interesting, or be silent.” Whenever a chat with a friend gets interrupted for the fiftieth time by a domineering five-year-old, I think fondly of monstrous Mrs. Lagerfeld.

That human reproduction should be choice at all is a comically short blip in our history, and we haven’t yet figured out how to manage it. (Looking at continental Europe, Japan, and non-immigrant America, our selfish minds seem to be winning over our selfish genes.) For now, we’re looking around us to see how many children we should have and how to raise them. My Irish friends, who can count on decent free schooling and nearby families, have three apiece. My coastal Americans started later and for the most part have just one or two.

It’s hard to rear children with just two parents, let alone one. When the rest of the community is not pitching in with advice, sanity, and day-to-day care, and won’t agree to pay for decent schools and healthcare, your little family has to hunker down. All your resources, financial, physical, and emotional, must make up for the lack of the tribe we’ve counted on for thousands of generations. You concentrate your investment in just a few precious children, so that you have enough to shield them from blows and deprivations. You offer them every opportunity you can make, and mold your day and your life to their evolving activities and needs. There isn’t much time or energy left for others, let alone yourself. And besides, you’re living with the funniest, most inspiring people you’ve ever met, and you had no idea that you could love this much. When they’re not boring you to distraction they are the most fascinating creatures on earth. What an adventure.

As your single friend, I think I get it and I’m delighted for you. But I also miss you, and I’m looking forward to solo, selfish, spontaneous sessions with you, just you. One of these days we’ll dream up more ways to make meaning in this world.

*CALI: Childless and lovin’ it.

Peckerhead

Like the devil, our rooster had many names.

Tim called him Peckerhead, which I found disrespectful. Once or twice I called him Bill O’Reilly, for his bombast, but that was trying too hard. We called him Tinpot, for his dictatorial strut. Ong Bok-bok-bok, for his Thai kickboxing skills. El Gallo, for his machismo. Foghorn, for tradition. Mostly, though, we just called him “the rooster.”

He was a foundling, probably an Easter chick bought on impulse and pushed from a car when it turned into a he. Tim’s neighbor, Bridget, noticed him in the woods at the entrance to their canyon, and for a week or more she lured him with scraps until starvation tamed his fears. She installed him in the chicken house that had lain empty on Sal’s ranch, and there he lived for a year in lonely bachelor comfort. Cooped up, with food and water provided, he had nothing to do but crow until Tim took pity on him and bought a bathful of chicks who eventually grew into thirteen bodacious hens.

From: Tim
Date: 7/15/07
Subject: first poultry copulation witnessed.

with the rhode island red. violent but quick, done in all of two seconds. he didn’t seem interested in any of the other hens, guess everyone is attracted to individuals who resemble themselves.

Peckerhead was not a considerate lover, but his passion was urgent. At first light, when the hens hopped down from their perches looking for breakfast, he would chase each of them in turn. The submissive birds would lower their haunches as soon as he got near, but others would squawk and run. It didn’t matter: he kept meticulous track of his progress and wouldn’t rest until they’d all been laid.

“I never see him eat,” said Tim. “He spends all his time fucking or fighting.”

He fought with Tim, his sole male rival. The rooster had nothing to offer the chickens but rape, oratory, and a flashy uniform. Tim had luxury treats—tinned sweetcorn, bits of cooked porridge, the occasional peach or red wine dregs—and the hens flocked to him like Saigon bar girls. Like the GIs, he had superior weapons, too. We’d gone to town one afternoon to add a Super Soaker and a shrimp net to our anti-rooster arsenal of brooms. No wonder Tinpot seethed.

If Tim were naked, they would have been fairly matched. The rooster had cruel yellow spurs and a glorious Elizabethan ruff, and though he couldn’t have been more than ten pounds, he would launch himself through the air with a force many times his weight. Tim learned to parry him with motorcycle boots, and over time they developed a striking Hong Kong combat style, where the whoosh of boots and feathers masked the lack of contact. Eventually Tim would catch him and snuggle him like a baby, while the rooster’s eyes boiled red with fury. Then he would fling him to the ground and douse him with the Super Soaker. Drenched and humiliated, the rooster would shake his feathers and peck the ground as if he’d intended this outcome all along.

“I have to show him who’s boss,” Tim said.

“Why?” I asked. I couldn’t reconcile to looking after a ball of testosterone held together with feathers, and kept wondering if all he really needed were more love and understanding.

“In the wild it would make sense for him to keep attacking—the dominant rooster will eventually get old and feeble. But for now he needs to have some fear of me, or we’ll never be able to feed the chickens.”

It was true. Entering the hen house was a daily battle that required the yellow broom—the rooster would fill the dark with spurs and beak and feathers. Whenever the hens pottered outside Tim’s cabin, dust-bathing and finding treats, the rooster prowled sullenly, looking for revenge. All summer, I had scabby welts on my shins, where he slashed me with his spurs when Tim’s back was turned.

We were surprised to discover that Pablita, the dark Americauna, started to sleep next to the rooster. Then Cleo and Helen joined them. Their relationship seemed to deepen, and we saw that he was learning to protect his henfolk. They certainly needed protection. Up there in the Santa Cruz mountains, there are many critters who dream of a chicken in every pot. We had lost three baby chicks to a raccoon, and Cleo was scalped by a skunk. Tim’s favorite White Brahma was disemboweled by a fox. Poor Susan had almost lost a wing in the same attack, and was patched up only to be murdered by a coyote some months later. A few yards below the coop, the neighbor’s cats had been killed by a cougar. Then there were the snakes, who slid down from the summit to find water in the canyon as the summer grew hotter and drier.

From: Tim
Date: 6/15/07
Subject: farm life
just after i got off the phone with you tonight i go to let the chickens out. as usual i sit in the coop doorway and ponder the meaning of everything while they scratch for bugs in the leaf litter. i notice the birds all gathered in a semicircle by the cage wire on the rooster’s side, still as statues but craning their necks and making a clucking sound i haven’t heard before. the rooster blithely strutting inside as usual. then i see they’re looking at a big rattlesnake coiled under the rooster’s perch box.

i’ve seen this snake before but she’s always slithered under the coop floor before i could do much. i mean, i could have chopped her in half with a shovel but i haven’t had the heart even though a snakebite would kill any of the birds in about five minutes.

so despite being addled i have the presence of mind to grab the broom, go into the rooster’s side, sweep him (pissed off) into the hens’ side, and close the door so he can’t bite my ass while i deal with the snake

i tip over the perch box and the snake rattles and coils then makes a dash for the wire. she’s a three-footer fat with woodrats that are themselves probably nicely marbled from chicken feed. she gets a third of the way out but i’ve grabbed her hind section and tugged and suddenly have a very ornery snake in the little coop rattling & striking into the air between us .

at this point i manage to pin her head with the broomstraw and get my thumb and forefinger tight behind her jaw. i pick her up and the rest of her coils around my forearm. i’m convinced i can do this because i handled museum cornsnakes and water snakes back in the day. they weren’t poisonous, so a little less at stake

and i’m thinking, if this snake gets loose and bites me how will i explain the unscheduled day off?

i find i need both hands to control the writhing snake but this presents the problem of forcing me to get past the rooster unarmed with the customary broom

he is all over me clawing and pecking but i parry him with my feet until he bounces up onto the hen roost and comes at my face. i dodge and forget that i have a live rattlesnake in my hands long enough for the snake to work loose and i have to recover by throwing her at the coop wall

i get just enough time to grab the shovel and give the rooster a whack not soon to be forgotten then switch to broom and repeat snake pinning operation, rooster pacing menace behind me

i walk past the rooster with the snake, open the main door with my foot, stride past the bewildered hens and out to the back forty where i toss snake into the brush. she hisses at me in total ingratitude

back at the coop i realize i am happier than i have been for a month. have i not been cursed to be haunting cubicle land with this goddamn farmer’s heart?

When he isn’t wrangling wildlife in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Tim helps make phone screens vibrate with sophisticated touch feedback, so that, say, the buttons feel like real buttons, or your girlfriend can send you a little “hug” when she calls. Thanks to the iPhone, people are excited about touchy-feely mobile devices these days, but to me they are Wire Mommies. What he really wants to do is to start a school of full-lifecycle chicken therapy for people driven mad, sad, or bad by lives spent behind screens trying to make other people buy things. He practices on me.

Unfortunately, the anti-consumerist farm therapy didn’t work in time to save Peckerhead’s life. Before our trip to Ireland for my sister’s wedding, I persuaded Tim to leave the sunlit ranch and spend an afternoon in a San Jose mall, choosing a wardrobe of meet-the-family clothes. Like egg factories, malls use Muzak and lighting and windowless walls to blot out the natural world, and we forgot about sundown. That’s when the hens troop back their perches—unbidden—and wait for the door to be closed against the creatures of the night. Busy in The Gap, we left our chickens exposed, and a mountain lion came for dinner. She left no signs of struggle. When we got back, the hens were trembling but unhurt, and all that was left of the rooster was a few bright feathers.

Peckerhead, the butt of our jokes, our unwanted foundling, our incorrigible bird, had died a hero’s death.

Anaheim, California

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”—Samuel Beckett, Murphy

“Welcome to John Wayne International Airport. The current Homeland Security threat level is Orange. To enhance your safety, and to avoid transporting dangerous goods, please do not leave baggage unattended. Please report suspicious or unattended packages to law enforcement personnel.”

“We have a high degree of need to protect structure.”—San Diego County Fire Chief, on NBC News

Anaheim, California should be paved over, if it weren’t already. We’ve been going there weekly for six months, yet my friend J. and I still get confused between the 57 North and the 55 as we leave the airport. Our plasticky rental cars get no respect on these freeways, which crawl with wide-arsed vehicles that are probably bought with the profits from p*n*s enl*rgement spam. We cut them off through incompetence, and get cut off in our turn. Who cares? It’s not as if they’re human.

With names like “Hotel Drive,” “Convention Drive,” and “Airport Way,” the streets round here don’t even try. We can’t get a purchase on the geography, so we learn to swerve into U-turns. We drive past Christian superstores, Disneyland hotels, and PetCo chains. Cell towers and bulldozers and parking lots. We look forward to our few landmarks: Fritz That’s Too, our favorite strip-joint, or Mr. Stox, an early 1980s power restaurant straight out of Caddyshack. The memory of dinner there makes us laugh every time.

We drive by strip malls and theme malls and self-styled anti-malls, where the women have padded lips, new breasts, and pale hair. It’s the opposite of camouflage—without them, you disappear at thirty. Their daughters wear skirts that my friend G. describes as “two inches from the good stuff.” Surrounded by modifications, I’m struck by how human beings are hard-wired for facial pattern recognition. I catch myself staring at people in Starbucks queues, searching for symmetries and flaws, trying to tell what’s been altered. Cosmetic surgery is unsettling, in the way that shaved eyebrows are unsettling, and I fantasize that some Hallowe’en the whole population of Orange County will wear t-shirts printed with their first driver’s licence photos, for easy comparison.

Our usual hotel is full, and we call this one the Willy Loman Memorial Marriott. Instead of room service, there’s a communal mini-bar at front desk—a fridge with a tray of tiny liquor bottles, Lean Cuisines, and frozen burritos. At 10 pm, J. knocks on my door and holds up a miniature Dewar’s scotch and a Snickers bar. “Dinner,” she says, my organic, vegetarian friend. “I just wanted someone to witness it.” We make up German words to describe the feeling of opening the door to a lousy hotel room: Hiltonschmerz. Scheissekarpetzgeist.

At breakfast, men eat pallid eggs and make notes on their PowerPoint decks with cheap hotel pens. They’re already in meetings, and it’s just past dawn. Soon they’ll waltz to the ballroom to show the numbers at the All-Hands, while their colleagues doodle. Their company name is pegged up on one of those old-fashioned event boards. They sell drug testing solutions.

John Wayne swaggers at the entrance to his own airport—cast in bronze, bow-legged, a life-sized 12 feet tall. Those security announcements loop on the intercom, full of robotic warmth, while we line up to be searched and have our hummus confiscated. At the departure level, two fat cops on Segways roll past a wall of windows that frames a dark orange sky. The Santa Ana bellows is still blowing on the wildfires to the south, and we can smell the smoke even in the sealed terminal. The air is itchy and thick.

“Keep your hands up! Don’t touch anything. “ A woman sprays Purell on every surface near her son, murdering bacteria, while he asks where I’m going. He’s five, and his name is Miles. He holds his hands up patiently and kicks his light-up sneakers. “M-I-L-E-S, Miles,” he says, mumbling the last letters as she swabs his mouth.

J. and I soothe ourselves with trashy magazines for the plane ride home. The sales clerk at the airport newsstand is a friend by now, and every week we discuss Britney Spears. While J. counts out the dollars for People she asks her a question. Something innocuous; about weekend plans, maybe. However it comes up, the woman answers that, well, at the moment, she’s homeless. She lives in her car, sometimes sleeps on friends’ couches. She’s hopeful that something will turn up soon.

Behind us, there’s a line of tired people waiting, without much interest, to find out if Brad really has walked out on Angelina this time. Or was it the other way round? Everyone wants to escape.

Helen the Chicken

From Tim:

Helen died this morning a little before dawn.

Her condition hadn’t changed much when I got back from work last night so I set up a heated infirmary ward for her in the bathroom. She seemed to understand that I was trying to help her and didn’t resist being picked up and relocated. She felt very emaciated.

She didn’t move much but stood erect and steady on a bed of newspapers. She drank a lot of water and took cooked oats, blueberries, and omelette scraps from my fingers.

Later she lay on my lap and let me stroke her and seemed very peaceful. I set her on a jury-rigged roost, a 2×4 spanned between the toilet and the bathtub. I collected moths from the windows outside and she snapped them up from my fingers with apparent relish.

She seemed bright-eyed and alert when I turned the lights out so I thought the little feeding might help her pull through. But around 4:30 I woke to the sound of thrashing and by the time I got down from the loft she was on the floor dead.

I buried her up on the hillside overlooking the house.

The others birds aren’t showing any signs of physical distress yet so fingers crossed this wasn’t something contagious. The three older hens do suddenly seem baffled and sullen. They didn’t want to come down from the roost this morning, and aren’t venturing far from the coop. I guess every time they lose a ringleader they have to work through considerable social adjustment.

No doubt in my mind now that they know and remember individuals and suffer some sense of dislocation when somebody dies, possibly something like our grief.

America Offline

Tim’s girls had spent a near-perfect chicken morning rolling in the dust, clucking over worms, and swerving from the randy rooster, and they objected to being shooed back into the coop so early. He was cool and heartless about it, like Tony Soprano ditching Carmela for an afternoon at the Bada Bing. We were going to the Santa Cruz County Fair in Watsonville to gawk at far more glamorous show poultry.

(I’d never imagined that one day I’d drive two hours on a motorbike to look at prize chickens. It makes me wonder what more excitement waits for me.)

It cost five dollars to park at the fair, and nine dollars each to get in. While we waited to be searched for weapons—poor America—sticky, cranky children trailed out with their prize goldfish. I’m glad that goldfish have short memories.

Tim bought a corndog right away. I wanted to go to the 4-H tent. At work I study what “youth” do, online and at the mall, and for moral peace I needed to see that some of them still grow radishes and make hand-drawn exhibits on The Life Cycle of the Mosquito. I’m descended from farmers, and grew up across the road from a dairy farm, and so of course, the teen me wouldn’t touch muck or muck-related things. Now that I’m old, I think farming is a wholesome pursuit for young people—especially in a country that calls soil “dirt.”

Small baskets of produce were arranged as carefully as a Yangon market stand. The best had purple ribbons. “Third Prize, Patty Pan Squash, Olivia Kohler, Age 7, Santa Cruz.” Three days into the fair, some of the carved vegetable creatures buzzed with fruitflies; soggier versions of the masterpieces in the photos propped beside them.

At the entrance to The Wonderful World of Reptiles, a crowd gathered around a man wearing an albino boa constrictor. Next door, in the Farmyard Tent, a red-haired teen sat in a pen supervising a miniature horse and goat. He stared a thousand yards past the punters who lined up to ooh and ahh as if we were in the Costco meat department come to life. The boy wore his disdain like the martyred llama that slouched opposite, under a sign that explained how donkeys and llamas differ. (“Different: Llamas dislike being looked at or touched.” “Similar: Donkeys and llamas leave their droppings in the same spot every day.”)

A hefty eleven-year-old—clearly the red-head’s sister—took more pride in being the expert on the bonsai Brahma bull in her pen. “He’s three years old. He’s not going to grow any more. I’m totally used to taking care of him,” she said with authority.

But the real draw was in the next stall, where a miniature ram called Napoleon lounged with his two short girlfriends. His shorn fleece had grown into a light, elegant sweater, revealing a huge, shaggy appendage that swung like a termites’ nest between his back legs.

“?Son los cojones?” said a man in awed disbelief.

“Dude, are those his NUTS?” said another.

“Daddy, what is it? What is it?” said a small girl, pointing.

You can learn a lot at the County Fair.

Outside, Tim ate a barbecued steak sandwich served by a Brooklyn Italian. I sweated in too-tight jeans. We still hadn’t found the prize chickens. The pig races were over, so instead we went to see Extreme Canines—dog athletes who did backflips and somersaults and caught dozens of frisbees in a minute.

The crowd was so thick I needed a piggyback to see the action, and when Tim got tired we wandered the Hobbies and Collections hall, peering at glassed-in life capsules. Model sportscars. “Sand From the Beaches of the World.” Motley Victorian teapots. “My SpongeBob SquarePants Stuff.” The handwritten cards explained each collector’s vision.

“When I was about 5 I really liked SpongeBob Squarepants and I started getting his stuff.
Now I have 23 things.
My favorite is the Krusty Krab model.
—Luis Sandoval, Age 7, Watsonville”

There was a line at the Bud Lite tent. There was no line at the Obama 2008 stand.

At last we found the poultry barn. The contestants—hens, roosters, bantams, game hens, ducks—sat in their cages, pecking at their corn and putting up with our stares. The plain-Jane layers and meat birds were grouped in one area, and the fabulous drag queens preened in another. At least the Polish chickens could hide behind their bangs.

After an afternoon strolling through an agricultural fair, I had an urge to show off in the poultry barn. Unlike these blow-ins fussing over the freak birds, I knew chickens. I’d spent at least six Saturdays watching them scratch while I drank wine. I’d read E.B. White. I’d cuddled chicks and collected eggs. I’d rented The Natural History of the Chicken from Netflix. I could recognize at least four breeds (with shaky accuracy). I was a chicken geek, in some senses at least, and I wanted recognition.

I stopped in front of a Rhode Island Red who was getting her cage cleaned out by an official.

“Oh, she looks just like Susan!” I said in a fake voice to Tim, and then turned to the straw lady. “One of our birds was killed two nights ago,” I told her. She clucked in sympathy. I accepted her condolences, even though Susan wasn’t really my chicken. “She’d taken to roosting in a tree after a raccoon attack in the coop. Probably a coyote got her. Lot of them up there in the mountains.”

I felt I’d established my credentials, but it was less satisfying than I’d hoped. “Reds are lovely birds. Good temperament,” I added knowledgably, wondering if Red or Rhodie was the cool-kid term.

The exchange reminded me what had made me an uneasy traveler in my year of back-packing. Being a tourist embarrasses me. I can’t stare in peace at what is supposed to be stared at—I looked at Angkor Wat sideways, the way New Yorkers look at Nicole Kidman on the street. I always want to pretend that I’m a local, an insider, an expert, even when it’s clear I’m no such thing. You can’t blend in without felt experiences, no matter how often you Google the customs.

As we left the Santa Cruz County Fair—a happy day—I wondered what it would be like to gawk at a 660 lb squash without a 21st-century commentary running like a velvet rope between me and the moment. To be amazed; to admire the labor honestly; to tot the sum of pies, pickles, and preserves a giant squash would yield; to talk about it with the neighbors while we waited for a bolt of calico or a bushel of chicory.

It might feel like faith.

pch-chickens.jpg

Chicks on the Pacific Coast Highway
Photo by Tim Vetter

Chicken notes

Helen demands treats

At 45, a man’s mind turns to fast engines and young chicks, and Ranger Tim is no exception. In a short time he’s acquired five motorbikes—all beaters—and seventeen hens. They’re his path out of the (Silicon) valley of darkness.

Four sisters survive from his first Easter clutch of bathtub chicks. For every murdered bird—lost to coyotes, rattlesnakes, racoons, or suffocating love—he consoles himelf with three tiny replacements from the hatchery in Watsonville. The nursery coop has been busy all summer, and the original four are now poised young hens.

Helen is still the favorite, a brash Americauna who will put up with cuddles in return for exclusive access to a soggy tomato. She lays Tiffany-blue eggs with orange yolks, which I coddle with cream. In fluorescent conference rooms, I look forward to Tim’s bulletins on her adventures:

“Helen is a lush,” runs one subject line. “Last night I opened a cabernet and sat watching the chickens scratch around by the house. She feels considerable entitlement to hand feeding of treats like pinhead oatmeal so often jumps up on the table and glares at me until I put out. This time though she was distracted, picking at the wine bottle, and so on a lark I tipped my glass toward her and with only brief hesitation she put her beak in there. Emerged shaking her head, then straight back in, lapping it up.

After a minute I took the glass away but I’m sure she would have licked it dry. As it was her beard and cheeks were soaked with wine and she looked lit and dishevelled like any young Englishwoman at the pub.”

When chicks are moved from the bathtub to the coop, at about two weeks old, they are confused by strange surroundings. Doors are a new concept. They blunder past the open door looking for the way out, or else they get out but can’t understand why their indoor sisters are right in front of them and yet out of reach.

At first we joked about their limitations. But they figured out the coop exit long before we realized that a chicken could visit our offices any day and marvel that even though the door was right there, these full-grown humans couldn’t seem to find the way out of our cubicles.

Chickens are wise. Every morning they deposit their rent in shared nest boxes. They spend the rest of the day gossiping while they scratch for food, exploring the ranch, and taking ecstatic dust baths. Because every bird looks out for the flock’s safety, together they have more time to feed and play. At dusk they troop back to their roosts and cuddle with a kindred spirit, until they wake with the sunrise. They have never taken a Work-Life Balance Seminar.

Lola’s Secret Nest